Whenever possible, curious birders wander field and forest to observe the natural world around them, taking particular interest in avians. Some birders are species counters; some record the number of individual birds seen each day. Others see birding as a competitive sport. Who can see the most? Or the rarest? Many are quite familiar with the inhabitants of their own “pea patch,” while those most obsessed spend year after year traveling the world over, accumulating quite impressive life lists. Thank you, Ms. Social Security!
All try to determine trends from their own note taking, from discussing sightings with other birders to participating in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count when thousands of birders comb assigned territories and record each and every bird we see.
Though skeptics scoff and claim this is not a particularly scientific or accurate method, professional ornithologists are thrilled this information was recorded from the onset in 1900, when the first count was organized by Frank Chapman as an alternative to killing as many different species on Christmas Day. This accumulated information is now available online at audubon.org. For daily information, go to eBird.org. You, too, can pore through a wealth of information to see how the bird world is faring.
So what has been happening in Berkshire County? The CBC Archives for Central Berkshire County present data from the first count in 1967 through 2020. Numbers do tell a story, but many factors, other than the numbers, must be considered. Are there more species seen because there are more observers or because the weather was quite mild in the week leading up to the count? Are fewer species seen after a long cold snap when ponds, lakes, rivers and streams are frozen? Or has the weather prevented participants from spending the day birding? Is the effect of climate change a reality, provable with these data?
The total number of species per year for these 54 years varies from 36 in the first year to over 73 this year. Most years, though, the total species count is in the mid-50s. After a brief review of the 54 years, I see only 10 species have been on every count: downy and hairy woodpeckers, blue jay and crow, chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch, cardinal and goldfinch, American tree sparrow and the ubiquitous starling. Not surprisingly these are the birds that come daily to our feeders. Well, not the crow, and goldfinch have been scarce these last few months. Other species that have almost made every count are: mallard and red-breasted nuthatch on all but one; while red-tailed hawk, white-throated sparrow and house sparrow have been on all but two.
In “A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” (1904), Ralph Hoffmann tells us the cardinal could be found in southern New England and New York, but was not present in Massachusetts at this time. David St. James in his “Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire Country, Massachusetts” (2017) states that cardinals are now very common, first recorded in the county in 1927, and first nesting in 1958. Since they are now everywhere and grace more Christmas cards than even cute chickadees, people think this bird has always been here. Remember that originally the bird was called the common or Kentucky cardinal, only being definitively changed to northern cardinal in 1983.
Other noticeable changes in winter residency include (but are not limited to): Carolina wren, mockingbird, red-bellied woodpecker and mute swan. All southern birds moving north with climate change.
In Hoffmann, Carolina wrens “occasionally wandered into the state.” They appear sporadically on our Christmas count until 2010. Since then, they’ve been observed in every year save one, with a high count of 18 in 2020. St. James tells us this wren was first seen here in 1931 and began nesting in 1975. This wren is now comfortably entrenched in the area. These sweet songsters sing no matter the season — a pleasure to hear them on my walk during these gray days of winter.
The mockingbird, with which I am familiar from Long Island, were, according to Hoffman, seen here individually in the fall and winter. But they, too, have become breeders. St. James, tagging them uncommon residents, notes their nesting began in 1966. These birds, affected by very cold winters, take a number of years to recover and start breeding again, hence only 12 times have they popped up on count day.
A bird with no entry in Hoffmann’s field guide is now the most common woodpecker of the Berkshires: the red-bellied woodpecker. According to St. James the bird was first recorded in the county in 1972 and began drilling house holes in 1994. Now they are suet fiends and noisy with it, a beautiful bird to watch. Red-bellieds made the count every year since 1996 but one. Another southern bird settling quite comfortably into more northern climes.
Last but not least, the mute swan has tired of living south all year and has flown in for the duration. This bird, like the red-bellied, has no entry in Hoffmann. St. James tells us that the mute swan ventured to the state in 1967 but didn’t begin breeding until 2011. This is still a tentative entry to the count appearing first in 2018. Yet it has been seen every year since then.
Though not specifically a southern bird, bluebirds, common in the 19th century, declined with the introduction in 1890 of that pushy bird the starling, which insinuated itself into the bluebird’s habitat and feasted on bluebird meals. Many organizations in the 1970s and ’80s began birdhouse projects to help bluebirds make a comeback. And they have! In Hoffmann’s day, they were considered summer residents only, but according to St. James, bluebirds are now regular breeders and regular winter residents, as they have shown up every year for the count since 1995. In 2014, 112 bluebirds were counted.
These six species, once rarities here, have embraced our warmer winters — a definite sign of changes in our land.